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Know the West

Let's get rational

  Dear HCN,

The issue of grazing on federal lands apparently is no longer a civil debate but, according to Andy Kerr (HCN, 6/13/94), a call to arms, the newest cause of ideological tribalism. The "greens' versus the "grazers." Eco-terrorists engaging in actual battle with People For The West. "Us' against "them," whoever they are.

Polarizing an issue may force action more quickly in order to avoid the threat of violence, but it is a dangerous, antisocial strategy, reflective of both urban decay and international dysfunction.

Not every rancher is a renegade and not every conservationist believes in the exclusion of human influence on the landscape. This newest rationalization for tribal violence fails even to define the boundaries of the conflict; it is reminiscent of other borderless wars, jihads, and assorted ethnic struggles, and it has little if any place in a democracy, let alone a courtroom.

Without rational debate, violence will indeed infect the West, as it has in the past, as it does now in our cities, and not only will the landscape suffer but also the social fabric of the communities that are under attack. However, if sensible minds can cull through the admittedly laborious process of democratic debate, then there is a chance that a commitment from our chosen, if not sometimes negligent, stewards of the land, the Forest Service and the BLM, may yet be achieved to enforce the spirit as well as the letter of the law.

While the current grazing proposals do not impose strict enough penalties on abusers, and may be too quick to reward average users, the Colorado model is on the right track. The real question is whether we should plan on monitored peace-keepers, patrolling for eco-terrorists and vigilante range-riders, or find a method for good science to be applied more evenly on the ground. We should not underestimate the force of mere "social approbation," as Aldo Leopold called it, when applied to land ethic issues.

The grazing issue is about the future of the West, not only its natural qualities but its communities. Save the rhetoric for fundraisers, Andy. What we need is a healthier Western perspective, one in which tolerance replaces brute force; a concept much better said by Wallace Stegner than I when he wrote of a time when the West "finally learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the pattern that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery."

Peter F. Michaelson

Denver, Colorado

The writer has been a district attorney for 10 years and serves as volunteer chairman of the board of the Colorado Wildlife Federation.